The New Jersey Supreme Court has overturned both the trial court and an intermediate appeals court, reversing one of the largest medical malpractice suit verdicts in New Jersey, a whopping $75,967,140 (which the trial court had reduced to $70,891,781.59).
The facts of this case, regardless of whether medical malpractice was the cause, are far beyond awful. A four-month-old boy suffered brain damage when he was deprived of oxygen following surgery in 1998. There was no dispute that the boy suffers from significant intellectual, verbal, and neuron motor deficits and will require substantial, round-the-clock care for the rest of his life, barring some incredible new technology. The boy also sustained a hypoxic-ischemic encephalopathy, which is a brain injury that results in cortical blindness.
In addition to what had to be incredible sympathy for the child (any human being would), the jury also had to be put off by the emergency room doctor’s defense. The doctor first argued that the injury occurred prior to her arrival in the PICU. But that claim was rebutted by reconstruction of the timeline that largely was undercut by the discovery of the cardiac monitoring strips that were produced by the defendants’ medical malpractice lawyers (not the ER’s doc’s malpractice lawyer) two weeks into the trial. Incredible, right?
So the judge declares a mistrial. The doctor then switched gears, arguing that she never should have been called to the PICU because she was not qualified to assist there and, oh by the way, I didn’t breach the standard of care, anyway. I’m not saying that argument can never work. But it is a tough one that obviously failed here.
Anyway, the trial judge allowed for voir dire in open court as opposed to side bar, trial ensued and the jury gave the award that it did. The intermediate New Jersey appellate court agreed that this practice was a bad idea, but not reversible error. A unanimous New Jersey Supreme Court disagreed, basically rebuking the trial judge for being contemptuous of the hospital after the mistrial in front of the jury. The crazy part of the whole thing is that the hospital settled before the second trial. So the reasoning is that the judge was so mad at a non-party that he corrupted the whole trial.
I guess I would want to read the briefs and read the transcript. But the reasoning that this prejudiced all parties to the case seems forced. This opinion is long on law but short on facts. You can find it here.